Oscar Watch: Decoding this year's For Your Consideration ads
This is the one time of year when the most eye-catching advertising in Hollywood is in print. Of course, I’m talking about the Oscar for-your-consideration ads that have fattened up my paper, the New York Times and the various trades over the past few weeks. The purpose of the ads is simple enough—to give Academy voters the kind of warm 'n' fuzzy identification with a movie that translates into a first-place vote for best picture.
Of course, that warm 'n' fuzzy stuff all goes to waste if voters don’t actually watch the film. As one marketing maven explained: “The number one thing the ads are saying is—whatever you do, please, please watch my movie. That’s the name of the game. If academy members don’t watch the movie, they’re not going to vote for it.” Of course, the ads often have another message to send, a message they’re sending to the studio’s top talent. That’s why we’ve still seen Warners rolling out full-page ads for “J. Edgar” long after the film has lost any hope of being a serious best picture contender. It’s the studio’s way of saying to its talent, Clint Eastwood in particular: Hey, we did everything we could to support your film.
So what are the best and worst Oscar ads of the year? I talked to several marketing experts, who offered their unvarnished opinions about which ads got their message across and which ones botched the job.
“War Horse”: Forget about “Seabiscuit.” Never has a horse looked better in a movie ad than that noble steed in “War Horse,” who is front and center in virtually every ad because, well, academy voters identify more with him than any of the actors in the film. The ad’s blurbs don't carry much weight, especially since most of the film's most effusive praise comes from minor critics like the New York Observer’s Rex Reed and the San Francisco Examiner’s Rossiter Drake. One marketer was especially unimpressed by a lengthy blurb from an American Film Institute citation: “That’s kind of lame. It has the words they wanted—'masterpiece' and 'grand-scale filmmaking'—but it’s the equivalent of using a rave from a Variety special section.”
“Hugo”: The ads have a classy tone, but the movie is a tough sell. “What can you show in a simple image that captures the film’s scope and movie love?” says one marketer. Besides all of the requisite “masterpiece” blurbs, Paramount is mostly going with a sepia-toned image of Ben Kingsley, on stage, with a parted-curtain behind him, preparing to take a bow.
“Moneyball”: Dull, dull, dull, the experts say. Most of the ads simply show a two-shot of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, either walking down a corridor or standing, arms folded, staring off into space. “It doesn’t sell any emotion or make you identify with the characters at all,” one marketer says. For my money, “Moneyball” has the year’s least effective blurb, with the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday saying that “ 'Moneyball’ harbors profound truths under its self-effacing exterior.” Huh? Can you remember anyone ever picking a “self-effacing” movie for best picture?
”The Descendants”: The ads go with nuclear-family shots of George Clooney with his two daughters, either holding hands and looking at the Hawaii coastline or slouched on their couch, eating ice cream under a cozy blanket. “They’re selling the emotion of the relationships in the movie,” one marketer says, “which separates the movie out, since there are so few family-relationship movies this year.” The ads also feature small photos of the rest of the cast, aiming to push the film’s ensemble angle as well, since it has a SAG best ensemble cast nomination.
“The Artist”: If the ads look familiar, with a series of black-and-white photos of its ensemble cast in the center of the ad, it’s because the Weinstein Co. used an almost identical format with “The King’s Speech” last year. If it worked once, why not try it again? The ads don’t show any big scenes from the movie, marketers say, because “The Artist’s” movie within the movie is full of broad silent-movie gestures that don’t play so well on the printed page. “They’re not very exciting ads,” one marketer says. “I’m surprised they don’t push the Old Hollywood angle more, since it should appeal to academy voters.”
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”: Bearing the stylish stamp of filmmaker David Fincher, these are easily the most distinctive ads of this year's crop, perhaps because they are doing double duty, selling the film to moviegoers as well as to academy types. Marketers were divided about whether they actually worked, or were simply attention getters. The up side: The ads' yellow-tinted type looks intriguing, especially with its unusual font. The down side: “The font gave me a headache,” says one marketer. “I felt like I was trying to read Russian.”
“The Help”: The ads really push the relationships in the movie, giving us lots of hugs and hand-holding involving its central characters, apparently aimed at giving voters a feel-good vibe. “The ads don’t seem to entirely know where they want to go, which is probably why they have too many pictures,” says one marketer. “One bold image would’ve been better.”
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”: It’s pretty obvious the movie didn’t fare well with critics, since Warners has been running ads adorned with praise from such relative nonentities as the AP’s Jake Coyle and People’s Alynda Wheat. The ad’s central image, of Thomas Horn, with his hands over his face, left marketers cold. “It’s bold, but it’s way too downbeat. They should be selling the movie to voters as a big emotional journey, not with a kid with a terrified look on his face.”
Photo: Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse." Credit: Disney